COVID-19 has killed more than 1.5 million people, and injured many, many more. It’s flattened economies and driven millions into poverty. It also happens to have forced a lot of minds to refocus, and face some uncomfortable truths. Essay by Paige Leacey.
The time is 11.42pm. I’m wrapped inside a mustard coloured corduroy doona, with my salt lamp glowing beside me. Its incandescence fills my room with a pink hue, which is fitting, because in this moment I feel like a little girl again.
The only shield between me and the gathering unfolding in my lounge is my bedroom door. The thin walls expose every cackle, every Doc Marten against the floorboards, and every occasion the name of the boy I like is screeched by girls I have never even met. Arms lengths away, he is wearing those girls like scarves and somehow, on this Saturday evening, my house has become the impromptu setting for a celebration. I’m aloof when I’m hurt so I don’t say anything — to him or to anyone else at the party. Instead, I put myself to bed and hope that makes enough of a statement. Or rather, I hope it gives me the upper hand in our dynamic and him the impression that I don’t care.
Sleep eludes me. As I lie there, encased in the heavy, buttery fabric of my bedspread, the feeling of rejection makes me want to run. As fast and as far as I can. I want to leave this town behind, go on holiday, imprison my hurt inside these rendered walls. I ache to return to Bali, to Thailand, to Cambodia. Anywhere cheap, anywhere now. But I can only run from this discomfort as far as my bedroom. The year is 2020, and there is a virus afoot. Travelling much farther than the front yard is a privilege no longer afforded to even the privileged.
I switch on my fairy lights; the flicker of the globes keeping pace with my beating heart. The echoes of the party penetrate the walls of my room, just as delicate as my ego, and jerk my self-worth into question. Running would be familiar, easier. If it wasn’t for the world being forced to retreat home, I would have chosen the illusion of intrepidness over this agonising vulnerability. This violent stillness. For a decade, I have been mostly on the move. Place to place, country to country; broadening my cultural horizons in order to expertly ask “um, excuse me, where is the bathroom?” in dialects that are not my own. The bathroom is across the hall from me now, and I hate the thought of what might be happening in there.
GROWING up in Australia, I was fortunate enough to receive a traditional education and share homes with parents who always put food on the table and picked up my phone calls. They encouraged me to travel and live wildly, to learn and expand. But underpinning all of their lessons was a covert white-knuckling of happiness. Their every teaching advocated that the pinnacle of existence was the longevity of this feeling. The Dalai Lama himself propagated, “the very purpose of life is to seek happiness,” and, for a long time, that relentless pursuit characterised my reality.
In February this year, when the Australian Government called all of its overseas-residing citizens home, I had been living on the island of Bali for two years, among a significantly-sized community of expatriates — a large portion of whom had, too, been on the move for most of their adulthood.
During the years I spent in Bali, I thought I was doing deep, spiritual work. There were plenty of downward dogs, energy healings and naps beneath tropical trees. I had complete autonomy over my time and the agency to create whatever I wanted each day, like a painter poised at her canvas with no deadlines or briefs. I had already traversed into my late 20s so tried attractions of drinking by day and fleeting promiscuity had fallen down my list of tourism to-dos. Instead, I absorbed the hours with, what I believed to be, more intention. Writing, reading, and ideation over tempeh and vegetables. I had invested in the promise of spiritual enlightenment and like a butterfly emerging from her consumerist cocoon, my living spoke of serenity and simplicity, both foreign and intoxicating. But this self-devised plan for personal development belied permanency, so you can imagine my whiplash when I was uprooted by a pathogen and flung back into my hometown where, only months later, I’d be left split apart by the unrequited lust of some boy I hardly knew.
The lawless behaviour of expatriates in Bali had taught me about Western privilege, and that for some lonely-hearts clubs, the dress code was more suggestive of figurative layers than literal ones. You could be forgiven for thinking that the island was full of self-love campaigners. But if that were true, I might have had healthier relationships while I was there. I both witnessed and participated in a colonial culture rife with spiritual bypass and toxic positivity. A convenient ‘last hurrah’ before having to accept responsibility as a part of adult life – or the Never Never land in which people linger so as to evade it forever. The characters I did meet and grow to admire in Bali, were not steady on their own two feet by virtue of time spent pontificating over coconuts while reclined in sun bleached beach chairs. They did so because at some point in their lives, they had asked themselves real questions about who they were, and radically accepted whatever answers came forward. Despite this, I was still more interested in keeping up who people thought – or told me – I was.
Because of this, what I felt at my own house party cut me deeper than just one-sided lust. Something primal had been triggered within me — rejection, dismissal, abandonment. The uncomfortable truth was that none of the ‘work’ I’d done in Bali, nor anywhere else, ever went that deep. All those years I was migrating, my self-inquiry never extended far enough inward that it prodded against my truest wounds. The wounds that I, myself, had rejected. The wounds that, after years of suppression at the hands of a culture petrified by sadness, had been driven so far into my subconscious they were barely perceptible as they took control of my life.
Instead, I was unwittingly hunting down opportunities for those wounds to be reopened.
Venturing to the level of self-approval (and awareness) that would integrate my deepest melancholy with my most ecstatic joy would require me to remove and obliterate the masks I had worn since childhood. My life’s instruction manual began and finished with smiling, and there had been no initiation into the acute pain or abrupt sadness that could arrive with maturity. There was no premeditated pause where I could grab a notebook before the real work began.
FOR most of my teens and 20s, I had been blissfully unaware that the optimism I wore like a sky-blue cowgirl hat was just a convenient tool to circumvent anything that drifted too far above or below my emotional equator. Along with happiness, I had been modelled stoicism as the prime examples of emotional success. Not just by my parents but by the concrete landscape in which I was raised. And until now, it had worked. A sunny disposition had carried me through to 29 years of age. Like an obedient Border Collie, I was conditioned and rewarded for being positive. People liked that about me, so I liked that about me. And for the generations that preceded my own – the Boomers, Gen X, and elder Millennials – it was their blueprint for keeping the peace, staying safe. My parents were born 20 years after the end of World War II. The fangs of capitalism had long sunk into the fabric of Australian life, and its values offered a beacon of hope for the broken: Get more, appear successful, be happy.
I was around seven years old when my father lost our Grandmother to cancer, but no tears stained his face. Not because he didn’t suffer the profound loss of a love displaced, of being forced to transform before he was ready — I know he felt that because we share the same sensitive genes — but because our family didn’t have the tools to assimilate his grief into the rest of our lives. My father didn’t have the foundations to accept and integrate this new, much rawer, layer of himself with his other responsibilities as a husband, a brother, a worker, a family man. That was the way of his generation. Why expose the mess when it was easier to just go on silently congratulating each other for being survivors? If no-one ever had to look their own pain in the eye then, collectively, we could permit fantasy to be our reality.
Growing up, I knew that if I didn’t disrupt the status quo it would be smooth sailing for everyone. I was the eldest in our small family so I only had my parents to look up to. The saying ‘it takes a village’ may be true, but on the North Shore of Sydney, and then later in Northern NSW, we just kept to ourselves. The side of me that blistered with frustration, anger, sadness and confusion was repressed by a buoyant facade — an interest that wouldn’t be paid for years.
Returning home from life as a nomad, courtesy of COVID-19 , I suddenly found myself idle. While the world was reckoning with its demons, I was finally called to sit with all of my own feelings, and I didn’t even know where to begin with admitting I felt vulnerable. In this ominous and exhausting climate, I could no longer muster the control and energy required to feign happiness — or even okayness. My reserves were depleted. Shaken completely out of my delusion, I wasn’t half the glossy human I’d written the role of.
In the past, any time my identity had been interrogated — when romantic partners begged to see my tender side, when co-workers rubbed up against something old and festering within me, or when my family reflected to me the parts of myself I had long disowned — I could just check-out. Hustle hard. Quit my job. Board a flight. I could always find a way to physically distance myself from whatever had disrupted my snug little narrative. But this pandemic had shackled me to the scene of the latest crime against my character and, albeit, only a nudge, over the edge I fell.
Outside a virus threatened the health of the human world, but down the dark and uncharted grottos of my psyche was another virus: my own belief that I was never going to be enough. For anyone, or anything. Inherent in my warped self-image also lay dormant the suffocating thought that, one day, I would actually have to confront this darkness within me. In her book Untamed, Glennon Doyle preaches that “the blueprints of heaven are etched in the deep desires of women”, but would I ever be so brash as to ask myself: What do I truly want out of life? Who do I want to be, in the face of all this? The rejection sure to follow such bold introspection felt far too turbulent to even contemplate.
On a macro level, COVID-19 meant the Hollywood-horror-style tyranny of a sub-microscopic infection, the unveiling of oppressive paradigms, the purging of world-dominant economies, and the operatic gasp of the natural environment. But for me, COVID-19 meant sharing space with my family for long enough to be reminded of how we hurt each other. It meant meeting myself as an adult for the first time, back in my hometown. It meant getting intimate with a single community’s opinions and thus my own of myself. It meant rewriting and deleting inconsequential text messages, ripping to shreds the skin around my fingers, crying in my car while checking Instagram for reassurance, and recklessly lumping my worth into the hands of others because the burden was too heavy for me to carry. COVID-19 meant living under such compression that the jokes, the joy and the, “jeez, work’s been busy,” autoreply could no longer be sustained.
At the peak of the pandemic, trusted health institutes pleaded with the government to do something more about the mental health crisis of Australians under duress. The loss of their identities endured in conjunction with the loss of their financial security and material assets were shaping up to be just as catastrophic as the bodily hazard at hand. Beyond Blue, a prominent Australian mental health organisation, noted a 30 per cent increase in calls following the implementation of social distancing in March and a further increase to 60 per cent in May (when measured against the same time in 2019). With ambiguity lurking around every corner, national unrest was at an all-time high.
But outside of the physical virus, was all of this truly that unprecedented? Or had the lid just been cracked on a more surreptitious undercurrent, finally allowing all Australians to admit they each fell somewhere on the axis of a-little-to-a-lot anxious and sad, a-little-to-a-lot of the time?
Billions of dollars cascaded from government coffers into new COVID-19 mental health schemes and collaborations. From early October the psychology rebates each Australian would be entitled to increased to 20 sessions. Inboxes were flooded with resources on how to cope, how to support, how to navigate, and how to breathe during these precarious times. Yet, from my observation, what each of these offerings missed was the acknowledgement that to be human is to manoeuvre through emotional uncertainty. Our country could have used a richer lexicon for sadness, dread and existential panic long ago.
IN MY early 20s, I lived with bulimia. I felt like an alien inside of my body, with so many questions about how to exist but gripped by so much fear of being exposed. There were days when I would purge everything that came into contact with my stomach, between being at the gym for 6am weights and then again for 6pm pilates. I unconsciously punished myself for merely thinking I deserved to exist. A part of me thought that I needed to be skinny to be beautiful and valuable in the world, but I also didn’t feel in control of my own thoughts.
I never told anyone about my addiction — bar one doctor, my mum and a masseuse I trusted — because I didn’t have a polished script to explain what I was dealing with. I didn’t even understand it myself. It felt too reductive to admit that I didn’t want to keep food down for fear that my ribs would no longer show through the skin of my back. But I didn’t have the language to convey that my disdain wasn’t really for how I looked, it was for how spiritually bankrupt I felt. The dopamine hit I’d receive from domineering my body was exhilarating, sure, but the quest to feel good all the time was the unhappiest experience of my life.
Move on, move on, move on, I’d tell myself. When you relocate, you’ll stop self-harming. But it never worked like that. Nothing ever filled those starving voids. I wouldn’t realise for a decade that the emptiness I forced myself to feel in more toilet cubicles than I can count wasn’t because I needed to feel thin, it was because I needed to feel empty to feel anything at all. All of the sadness, and weirdness, and discomfort that had proliferated in my life (amidst the joy, the pleasure and the fortuity) wanted to be realised. Only once its core had been paid attention to would I have any chance at recognising the psychological trap into which I’d staggered.
The body wants to surface and heal its wounds, just like the cells in our skin after an endless afternoon in the sun. The burn of any bad experience takes time to complete its natural cycle and move out of the body, but if its passage is blocked, the trauma doesn’t just dissipate. There it stays lodged, awaiting its turn to be seen. The body holds no judgement for emotions that are not happiness or joy, either. It trusts it can alchemise any grief or gloom into gifts. The mind is the one far easier swayed, allowing external factors to program which feelings are most appropriate, and in which order they should be prioritised.
MY iPhone reads 12.56am. I venture past my bedroom door for a glass of water, exposing myself again to the object of my begrudged affection as he knocks back tequila in the kitchen. His eyes are vacant, his posture proud and I see my own mask reflected back to me, like a mirror. He gulps from the bottle as if its contents were Cottee’s cordial, and I ask him where he is trying to go. He ignores my question and slinks back into the party.
If we choose to recognise it, sadness has a lot to teach us. Our nausea, both collectively and individually, can point us in the direction of our problems. Through the shadows we are invited to look deeper for solutions, and to lean into courage and compassion to access the freedom we grapple so helplessly for externally. Our emotions are what bind us as social mammals and they are the truest norths we have – if we are willing to work with them as neither malevolent nor virtuous. This is no easy feat.
A person who has been observed as jubilant for most of their life may be received with trepidation by others as their inner world begins to rise and perforate the surface. But this contending of their prevailing factory settings, and these moments of disjuncture as they surrender to accepting themselves wholly for who they are, will pass. Just as the emotions that provoked the concerns in others will too.
The antidote to shame is honour, so we must honour each other in revealing our unique truths. Beyond the numbness, the resistance, the tequila straight from the bottle, awaits exquisite beauty, and the kinds of connections this new world order calls desperately for.
BY 1:07am, I’ve retreated back to the safe confines of my bedroom. I am all alone but for the moth who perches atop my vinyl roller blinds. The weight of my heart has subsided, just for this moment. The salt lamp, a big pink rock someone decided to make luminous, is sweating onto my bedside table making the pages of my favourite books slimy and wet.
I want to lick it up but I don’t. I must have licked something briny as a child and fallen ill shortly afterwards. Or perhaps I burned myself on a hot lamp? Either way, something inside me knows better than that.
*Ed’s note: This is a paid contribution, and New Matilda pays better than most (we also, proudly, have a 23% ‘gender loading’ for women writers). Even so, a lot of work (and even more skill) went into bringing you this essay. If you got something from it and want to give something directly back to the writer, you can contribute to Paige’s Paypal.me account here.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.